Women, both local and foreign, travelling in Sri Lanka face major safety issues, which despite numerous incidents are yet to be properly addressed. The latest regrettable situation arose when a Russian national and her friends were harassed and threatened while walking along Galle Face Green. While five suspects have now been identified and legal proceedings have begun, there is a need for larger awareness and behavioural changes that need to take place to protect all women.
Tourists, especially women, face high levels of harassment in Sri Lanka, which if the number of reports is anything to go by is growing. The details as listed in some reports are alarming. In 2018, two British women were severely harassed in Mirissa while they were at a bar. A 19-year-old Dutch man was severely assaulted by several local men when he stepped in to stop the local harassers. All three were beaten by locals and the women faced threats of rape.
The area residents had told reporters such incidents were common, but few were reported to the Police because the visitors did not want to face the hassle of dealing with local authorities. There have also been multiple reports of rape, with perhaps the most famous being the incident in Tangalle in 2011, where British national Khuram Shaikh Zaman was murdered and his Russian girlfriend gang-raped. The case, which involved the former Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman, was eventually concluded several years later.
It is estimated that about 43% of tourists who come to Sri Lanka are women, and increasing instances of sexual assault, harassment, rape and even murder will eventually have an impact on tourism numbers and Sri Lanka’s hospitality reputation in the world.
Given Sri Lanka’s deeply entrenched patriarchy and issues of impunity, it is not surprising that even a cursory internet search reveals dozens of alleged instances of rape and sexual harassment complaints as far back as 2010, peppered with warnings to officials of the growing dangers for female tourists. Travel advisories issued by countries contain warnings specifically for women. In January 2017, two off-duty Police officers were arrested for harassing a Russian woman in Mount Lavinia, showing the seriousness of the problem.
In August 2019, Sri Lanka jailed a person accused of sexually harassing two British women for five years after getting video evidence on Skype, in a landmark case that shows how accountability can be used to stem a decades-old menace when there is institutional support.
This instance highlights how accountability can be achieved when institutions come together to aid the victim and promote justice. The Police, Attorney General’s Department, the High Court, and tourism authorities all joined to deliver justice. If the same could be done for other cases of harassment, which women encounter unceasingly, this issue could be addressed and women made to feel safer. It is a refreshing deviation from the victim-blaming that is usually seen in these instances.
Obviously treatment of foreign women is a dimension of the larger issue of how Sri Lankan women are eve-teased and harassed every day, even in public spaces such as transport, but nothing is done to prevent it. Stakeholders need to address this issue so that all women can feel safer travelling in Sri Lanka.